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The Everlasting Gobstopper of tires

There is a fundamental law of car ownership: Your tires will always kind of suck. You buy new tires and they work really well for a little while, but then they start to wear down, and they gradually get worse and worse until you can spit in the road and your car will hydroplane over it. At the same time, the rubber gets so hard that you can’t hear anything over the roar of road noise. Then you buy a new set of tires, and the whole process starts all over again.

It’s a metaphor of despair and futility.

Cars are delivering torque and horsepower today that would burn the rubber right off older tires.

But now there’s hope. I spent some time this week talking to two guys who have been working to give you tires so good that you rarely have to think about them. Brian Remsberg is Director of Consumer Public Relations and Stacy Lindsey is the OE Product Category Manager at Michelin North America.

Lindsey and Remsberg told me that Michelin has found a way to break the perpetual cycle of misery. They have invented what is essentially the everlasting gobstopper of tires – the tire evolves as it wears to prolong safety over time. Sure, these tires will eventually wear out, but what you care about is that they continue to perform well in wet weather until you grind them clean off and it’s time for a new set.

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True confession time – I am a tire geek. I spend an inordinate amount of time researching tires, road-testing them, and hounding tire engineers, so I wanted to know how they managed to defeat the decline and fall of every tire ever made.

If you don’t look too closely, it’s tempting to think that tire technology doesn’t change very much over time. But both automakers and drivers care deeply about getting just the right look and performance out of their wheels.

“Automakers bring new products to market all the time. And it’s no secret that rim sizes are going up and aspect ratios are going down. A lot of that is designed to make the car look better, but you can also put bigger brakes on the car to help with stopping, and you can improve performance,” Lindsey says.

There are a number of reasons why wheels and tires are evolving. The first and biggest reason is that cars are delivering torque and horsepower today that would burn the rubber right off older tires, and we’re not talking about pure performance cars, either.

Remsberg is clear: “You look at the torque specs from 10 years ago and they’ve almost doubled. In some trucks they’ve tripled. You have those performance leaps in vehicles and we need to be there with the automakers.”

So what about this amazing new tire design? Here’s the new idea behind the EverGrip technology that Michelin has developed: the tread actually evolves and gets better as the tire wears down. It’s not in the rubber – it’s how they make it.

“As a standard tire wears, it has less and less open space, which reduces its ability to evacuate water, so it has more tendency to hydroplane,” Lindsey says.

They’ve invented the everlasting gobstopper of tires – they don’t lose traction, get better as they go, and don’t get worse until you grind them clean off.

That happens because most traditional tire tread grooves are V-shaped. The spaces that expel water are nice and wide when the tires are new, and they get narrower as the tire gets worn down. But with Michelin’s EverGrip design on the new Premier LTX tire, the main tread grooves get wider as the tire wears. And there are smaller grooves on the tire that open up over time.

Lindsey points out, “Over 140 new grooves appear as the tire wears.”

Lindsey showed me how it works. Using CAD and the latest in tire building techniques, Michelin makes its new tires with tiny slices that expand into teardrop shapes, so you actually get more and wider grooves as the tire wears, to compensate for having shallower grooves.

“Our claim on this tire is, when it’s half-worn this tire still stops shorter than our leading competitor’s brand new tire,” Remsberg insists.

So that’s it – your next set of tires should get better as you drive. Don’t you wish everything worked like that?